Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hegel and Marx on Freedom

"For Hegel freedom consists in being in a certain reflective and deliberative relation to oneself, which itself is possible, so it is argued, only if one is also already in a certain (ultimately institutional, norm-governed) relations to others, if one is a participant in certain practices... Put most simply, for an action to count as mine, it must make a certain kind of sense to the agent, and that means it must fit in intelligibly within a whole complex of practices and institutions within which doing this now could have coherent meaning... On his view, all of the standard conditions of action (e.g. "doing it voluntarily, uncoerced") could be fulfilled, yet we would not want to say that the action is truly "mine" such that I could fully or truly stand behind it, own up to it, and claim ownership of it... Hegel denies that we can separate the moral-psychological, individual dimension of freedom from social relations of dependence and independence said to be equally constitutive of freedom..." Robert Pippin, Hegel's Practical Philosophy, p.4-7
There is much about this that is very attractive as a conception of freedom. Hegel rejects the impoverished "negative" liberal conception of freedom that claims that we are free to the extent that we, as isolated individuals, are not "interfered" with by external coercion. Whereas this anemic view of freedom begins from the idea that persons are asocial atoms unto themselves, Hegel's conception of freedom proceeds from the fact that we are not isolated individual atoms: the institutions, traditions, practices, norms and social relations which surround us are partly constitutive of us. To be free is, therefore, not to be cut off from these constitutive features of human life. To be free is to stand in the right kind of relation with respect to oneself and others. It is to be able to affirm the basic institutions of social life; it is to be able to see oneself and be at home in such institutions.

But, of course, life under modern capitalism is such that we cannot rationally be at home in our society. We cannot see ourselves in the basic institutions of society (e.g. the market, private ownership of the means of production, etc.), since they lord over us as something alien to us, something not under our control. As I noted in a previous post:

"Consider the well-worn idea that you 'can't buck the market'. We have become so used to things as 'market forces'...that you are just as likely to come to grief as if you ignored natural forces -gravity, magnetism and so on.... you'd better do what the market says or else you will be in trouble. But what is the market? Simply the accumulated effects of innumerable human decisions about production and consumption. It is, thus, our own product, from which it follows that, once more, we come to be dominated by our own product."
Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism is, thus, in Marx's words, "the complete domination of dead matter over men". We cannot affirm the basic institutions of capitalist societies as our own since they dominate us. They are not the products of deliberative, collectively exercised reason, as are the expressions of a democratic process. The basic institutions of capitalism are the products of a system whose basic function is to generate profit for the ruling class. The result is that work, daily life, leisure, the majority of cultural production, etc. all tend to be structured around this unsavory, inhuman end of profit accumulation. This condition of not being able to affirm and recognize our social condition as our own is what Hegel called alienation. Freedom, then, is a kind of "non-alienation", an achievement in which alienation is overcome by way of a socially-grounded self-determination.

Moving from Hegel to Marx, it's worth saying a bit more about why contemporary capitalism is both alienating and unfree. By any measure, capitalism has succeeded in developing the forces of production (e.g. technology, productive instruments and techniques, instrumentally useful technical knowledge, etc.) to a very high degree. But rather than putting this powerful productive capacity in the service of meeting human needs, developing human talents and capabilities, creating the conditions for flourishing, etc... instead, almost all human potential is subjected to, and dominated by, the need to increase profit. Growth for the sake of growth, accumulation for the sake of accumulation, profit for the sake of profit. These are the unsavory priorities that shape social life under capitalism.

Whereas a free society would be one in which the productive forces were put in the service of human interests... ours is one in which human interests are subordinated to the expansion of the productive forces for the sake of expansion. Whereas a rational society would be one in which capital was subordinated to human ends, ours is a society in which human ends are subordinated to the dictates of capital. Whereas capitalism makes us feel as though we're the playthings of larger economic and social forces beyond our control... a socialist society would be one in which we could take control over our own lives by democractizing the basic structure of society. We can only call a society our own when we are able to say of the basic goals of that society that they are the products of our collective deliberations.

It should be obvious why so much of Hegel's conception of freedom appealed to Marx. To be sure, Hegel did not properly understand what the institutions and basic structure of modernity are like. Moreover, whereas Hegel claimed that modern capitalism was a product of a rational historical process, Marx was unrelenting in showing this to be false. History, Marx argued, is not the gradual unfolding of reason, culminating in modern capitalism. History is a political struggle among different groups, framed by the way in which the social surplus is produced. Capitalism, therefore, is not the rational overcoming of alienation, but merely another form of alienation, another class society like those that preceded it. The difference, however, is that capitalism, for the first time, creates the conditions for a free society in a way that previous societies did not. Whereas a free, egalitarian society may not have been possible in the Bronze Age, capitalist societies have made possible such a high degree of productivity that we can satisfy all basic human needs without working ourselves to death doing it. For the first time in human history, the high level of development of the productive forces under capitalism make possible a society free from alienation, class domination and objectively necessary poverty and suffering.

Freedom would not be to walk through a supermarket perusing 20 different brands of toilet cleaner without "external interference"... freedom would be to see in basic social institutions the mark of human, democratic reason. It would be to see oneself, as a member of a modern democratic society, in the basic structure of society and, thus, to be able to reflectively endorse and affirm that society. Such is not possible when the iron law of profit dictates what is to receive investment and what is to wither on the vine. It is not possible to reflectively endorse and affirm what is imposed upon us in the interests of inhuman ends. That is to say, it is not possible to be fully free in a society in which the commanding heights of the economy is governed by the demands of profit and controlled by a small class of capitalists.

In light of the above we can make sense of Alasdair MacIntyre's claim that " least one philosophy course, and, more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims." To "unfit" students for the modern age, as I'm reading it, means to get them to think critically, i.e. to become aware of alienation (to see clearly the sense in which we cannot truly be at home, and hence free, in modern capitalism). A good education would not be one that subordinated all curricula to the capricious demands of the labor market. A good education would be one which produced in us "habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world" in such a way that they would come to demand that the world itself change. Rather than pandering to the world as it is, good education would challenge us to think seriously about how to change it for the better and truly make it our own.

It should be obvious, but it's nonetheless worth saying, that bureaucratic central planning is equally condemned by this view of freedom. The mechanistic distortions of Stalinism are anathema to freedom. If the basic institutions of society are under the control of a bureaucratic nomenklatura, this is hardly better than capitalism. In such a case we would still feel that we were subject to forces beyond our control, forces which were emphatically not the products of collective, democratic deliberation. For if the state, rather than private capitalists, dominates production there is still the question: but who controls the state? Thus, it should be obvious that taking this Hegelian-Marxist view of freedom leaves only one route to overcoming alienation and class domination: the most radical form of democracy. Only when we're all able to interact with each other as equal co-legislators are we fully free. As long as social relations of domination exist, freedom is not possible. Thus, freedom and equality are not antagonistic others, but mutually constitutive aspects of the same goal.


lime said...

I found your site doing research for a paper comparing Marx and Hegel's philosophies. This is really a beautifully written piece. With OccupyWallStreet in full swing now in early October of 2011, how would you suggest individuals start to transform the American capitalist system into a freer, more self-realized society?

t said...

Hi! Glad you enjoyed the post.

As I see it, the Occupy Movement is basically a movement against the sort of unfreedom I discuss in the post.

The vast majority of people have the sense that they are the playthings of forces beyond their control. They don't see themselves or their collective democratic reason in the basic institutions of society. What they see is an economic system set up to service the interests of a very small percent of the population. They see that their access to employment and credit is determined by the play of global economic forces over which they have no control. They see that the political system is basically unresponsive to their needs and interests, even though it never fails to benefit the rich. This is a form of alienation. To oppose it to put forward a radical cry for freedom --i.e. the capacity to collectively self-determine our lives and self-govern free from the domination of the 1%.

It's about the 99% taking control of society (economy, the state, etc.) and running all of democratically in the interests of the vast majority. To the extent that we fail to achieve this we are unfree.